Feb. 9, 1980
3 days before the opening of the Olympic games in Lake Placid.
Madison Square Garden. A fundraising exhibition game between the US and the USSR hockey teams.
The US team had been training like gangbusters, learning the more fluid interchangeable-position Soviet style. Herb Brooks was determined to at least put up a good fight, and the only way that could happen would be if the US was willing to change, change their style, and try to “throw [the Soviets'] game right back in their faces”. It was a long-shot that the US and USSR would even get to play one another at Lake Placid. A lot of games had to take place, with the US winning all of them, in order to even reach the Soviets. But the Soviets were the ones to beat.
So this game at Madison Square Garden, on February 9, 1980 – 34 years ago today – was very important. It wasn’t important as a game in and of itself, it was just an exhibition match … but psychologically, it was going to be very important. How would the young US team fare against the towering amateur-in-name-only Soviet players? Could the US players send a message? Could they broadcast their intentions? Could they let the world know they would be worthy competitors?
Recently, the Soviet team had beaten the NHL on American ice, winning the challenge cup, a huge humiliation for the United States.
The Russians had dominated the sport for almost 30 years at that point. The last time the Americans had won the gold at the Olympics for hockey was in 1960.
So although it was a long shot that the Americans would “go the distance”, they certainly had had enough of being humiliated, and on February 9, 1980 were eager to stand toe-to-toe with the Soviet giants, and show the world what they had been training for, that they could be “contendahs”.
To those of you who don’t know the story:
The USSR beat the US at Madison Square Garden, on February 9, 1980 – 10 to 3.
It was a crushing defeat, psychologically and physically. The US had been playing their upcoming Olympic competitors through Europe in the previous months, in exhibition matches – and had been faring pretty respectably. But meeting up with the USSR was the real test.
All illusions of even moderate success were wiped away on February 9, 1980.
Of course we all know what happened on February 22, 1980 … less than 2 weeks later.
But it is important to remember that that victory was not at all a done deal. Not even close. It was, actually, unthinkable – especially after the 10-3 game at Madison Square Garden.
COMPILATION OF QUOTES ABOUT THE FEB. 9 GAME AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN:
Vladislav Tretiak, brilliant goalie of the Soviet team, writes about this game in his autobiography (sent to me by my good friend Emily):
Our National Team arrived in the States a week before the lighting of the Olympic Flame. There was a sparring match between the USA and USSR teams. The score, 10-3, speaks for itself. The Americans showed us only a symbolic resistance; the forces were completely unequal. Our opponents looked up to us, not hiding their respect. For them, we were the team that had beaten the best North American professionals, and not just once! Every one of them dreamed of becoming a professional player.
I remember their goalkeeper, [Jim] Craig, trying to catch my eye all the time. Whenever he succeeded, he would smile and nod politely. The Americans didn’t even think about winning then. The only question was how many of our pucks they would let in. They were very upset at letting in ten; nevertheless, they had a higher opinion of themselves.
Who could have known that this victory would play such a bad joke on us? It would have been better for us had we not won that exhibition game at all.
“They were the Red Menace. They wore the CCCP across their chests. They were very very intimidating.” – Dave Silk, US forward
“You had heard about them. You had known about how good they were. You had known about their successes. And now you were going to play them. And that night it was ‘Welcome to the real world, boys.’” – Mike Eruzione, US team captain
“We got crushed. And we thought … these guys are in another world.” – Dave Silk, US forward
“They just kicked us around that rink. The goals they scored – you could have filmed them they were so beautiful.” – Jack O’Callahan, US defenseman
“We were playing the Soviets right in Madison Square Garden – I knew I had to tweak Jimmy [Craig] again. And he was playing well, but it was a mind thing with him. I said, ‘Jimmy, I fucked up.’ I said, ‘I played you too long. Not your fault. My fault. I see these elements in your game. You’re playing tired. My fault, Jimmy.’ He says, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I gotta play Janaszak here half the game. I want to give him some work because – I just see some flaws now. And I’m kicking myself, Jimmy. I played you too long.’ And he said, ‘It’s my job, I’ll show you, you dirty blah blah blah …’ So halfway through that game, I yanked him. I yanked him right there in front of 18,000 people. And he was livid. This was my last tweak with this guy. I knew what I had. Solid goalkeeper … Right after we won [in Lake Placid], he came right to me, with his finger in my face, saying, ‘I showed you, didn’t I. I showed you, didn’t I.’ I said, ‘Yep. You sure did, Jimmy. You did a helluva job, kid.’ ” — Herb Brooks, coach for the US team
“We were about ready to stand up and applaud them. We had never seen anything like that before. Guys were saying, ‘Did you see that goal? Did you see his move?’ We were spectators.” – Mark Johnson, US forward
“I looked up at the scoreboard. It said 10 to 3. It might as well have said 20 to nothing. 10-3 made it sound closer than it was. It was no contest.” – Al Michaels, sportscaster
“There couldn’t have been a greater low point, given the preparation and the work we had put in. It was very demoralizing.”- Jack O’Callahan, US defenseman
FEBRUARY 9, 1980:
A MERE 13 DAYS LATER, FEBRUARY 22, 1980:
“Anybody who left Madison Square Garden that day thought to themselves: ‘The Soviets will win every game in the Olympics, take home the gold medal, and never be challenged.’ And the US? All you knew is that when it came time to face the big bear, they had no chance.” – Al Michaels